Magazine article The Spectator

The Sound of Seduction

Magazine article The Spectator

The Sound of Seduction

Article excerpt

A beautiful speaking voice draws attention to the words spoken

Recent text from a female friend. 'I'm in love with Neil MacGregor.' To which I reply, 'But of course! Up there with the Dean of Westminster and Frank Gardner.' The same day, walking in Kensington Gardens, another friend admits, 'I think I'm in love with Neil MacGregor.' We mourn the fact that MacGregor's Wikipedia entry tells us he's 'listed in the Independent 's 2007 list of most influential gay people', so the director of the British Museum is, sadly, out of reach to womankind. It's his beautiful speaking voice that does the trick.

I like the way, in his Radio 4 series Germany: Memories of a Nation , MacGregor pronounces 'Germany', with a sounded 'r'. I relish the erudition and the intimacy in his voice when he says, 'If I could choose one object to sum up the Bauhaus, it would be this cradle.' You can tell, from the way he pronounces 'Jedem das Seine ' (the words on the gates of Buchenwald) that he speaks fluent German -- 'Gerrrman' -- and my Wiki researches confirm that after being educated at the Glasgow Academy (the son of two doctors), he read Modern Languages at New College, Oxford, so is probably multilingual as well as a polymath. The precise way he speaks seems to me a mirror of his clear thinking.

Tastes differ. Two friends I subsequently asked said that they couldn't stand MacGregor's voice. One said, 'I have to turn the radio off. He's so camp.' The other said, 'I agree that the construction of his sentences is perfect. But his articulation is strangulated. You can't tell exactly what accent he's got. And he says "rin-oceros" rather than "rye-nocerous". That's plain wrong.' I checked. It's true: in minute 11 of the porcelain episode, MacGregor does indeed say 'rin-oceros', not once but twice. What is that all about? And it's true, those 'r's of his are hard to place: not rolled in a normal Scottish James Naughtie way, but soft. But I'm not cooling my crush yet.

I'm not the kind of person who goes for mere sexy huskiness in a voice. Magnum ice-cream advertisement voiceovers do nothing for me. The Classic FM smooth 'relaxing classics' announcer gives me the creeps. Anonymous, spitty sat-nav voices ('Acrosss the roundabout, ssecond exxittt') might be some people's erotic fantasies but they are not mine. Of course, timbre (the musical instrument of the voice, which is a gift of birth) does matter; but it is not enough on its own. What I love is a voice that also exudes knowledge, wisdom and experience: it is these that give a voice its depth and beauty. As Amazon says, 'If you liked this you might also like...'. This is perhaps true of voices. If you like Neil MacGregor's voice, you might also like the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner's. Gardner will be the one who tells us on the Six O'Clock News that Islamic State are now sweeping through the Home Counties, beheading as they go. Paralysed himself by al-Qa'eda terrorists, he really knows what he's talking about, and his quietly deadpan voice is (to me, at least) deliciously thoughtful and disturbingly truth-confronting.

People who like Anna Ford's voice (and there are still many after all these years) also like Francine Stock's, formerly of Newsnight , now of TheFilm Programme on Radio 4. Both have a well-brought-up throatiness (you sometimes have to clear your own throat while listening to them) which draws you to them, reminding us that some of the most beautiful voices are imperfect ones. …

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